Sunday, January 2, 2011

A new way to experience art and nature

I just read this:
Geerat Vermeij, a biologist at the University of California-Davis who has been blind since the age of 3, has identified many new species of mollusks based on tiny variations in the contours of their shells. He uses a sort of spatial or tactile giftedness that is beyond what any sighted person is likely to have. (link to article)
This raises several interesting ideas for me. First off, how do people blind from birth decide what to do with their lives in not-blind culture and society? If everyone were blind then blind-culture would simply be culture. But instead they have to adapt to our culture—and blindness in not-blind culture is considered a limitation.* But clearly blind people should be out on the beach stroking mollusks with their super-fingers, or whatever other occupation that can stand in as a metaphor for.

In any case, how do you appreciate nature if you can’t see? It’s the very first way we engage with a landscape—we see it and it is beautiful/awe-inspiring/barren/frozen/woody, etc. Then we start to think about the sounds of things—falling water, wind in the trees—then the smell of it. These first impressions are contrastive with the urban or quasi-urban environment in which most of us live. “It is quiet here, no traffic.” “It smells like trees, not like a public bus.” The longer we spend in nature the more our senses open up, although why should it be like this? The natural world has as much stimulative power as the urban environment, and it only gives the impression of being simpler and nicer and calmer—there are plenty of unpleasant and overwhelming things to sense out there too.  I think that simply changing from one kind of environment to another is what opens up our minds to experiencing our senses more fully. After a while in the woods, my heart ceases to thrill with joy at every new bird song. And after I come back to the city from a few days outdoors there is a definite “shock” period before my senses limit themselves back to city standards.**

Also, in what ways are our senses limiting us from knowing the world in a more complex way? Once when I was hiking with my partner, he gave me a cool rock he found, and on impulse, and to be funny, I licked it. (His reaction of course: “Don’t lick it!”) The rock took on a whole new dimension for me—not only the taste of it (a little cold and gritty), but also the texture of it. Our tongues are sensitive to shape, texture and proportion in a different way than our fingers.

I think I had been turning over this idea for years without knowing it. My friend Carey was in an art program in NYC a number of years ago, and during my visit there we went to a museum that had some pretty exciting Van Goghs. I’ve never seen his work up-close, they are much more interesting in person. If you kind of turn to the side of the frame you can really see the turbulence of his brush strokes, like an ocean scape. And you can see the little hairs of his brush that got stuck in the thick paint. Carey told me that she wanted to lick his brush strokes, to feel their form. (My reaction of course: “Don’t lick the Van Gogh!”) It was a weird thing to say, but it makes total sense now.

However, I suspect that “nature tasting” and “fine art tasting” are not going to take off as hobbies. Evolutionary trial and error has taught us not to put weird things in our mouths.

*We're not attuned to the psychic phenomena that seem to haunt the average housecat. In housecat culture, we are very limited. Perhaps that’s why they disdain us.
**An interesting thing to do, that I'm way too lazy to attempt, would be to make a map using different senses--a smell map of a city, perhaps. Too ephemeral to be useful?

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